Salty breezes twirl Spanish moss and steal perfume from Confederate jasmine hedges that flank a cobblestone alley. Interspersed throughout the hedges are ornate wrought iron gates, coated with layers of shiny black paint, begging views of lavish gardens. A horse-drawn carriage plods by pastel-colored homes and then along the palm-lined harbor. Just around the corner, antebellum mansions tower over The Battery and enthrall all eyes that pass.

In the warm morning sun, the streets are swept and blue slate sidewalks washed. Boutique shops open for Saturday business along King Street while art galleries on Broad Street raise their blinds. Meanwhile, a few dazed stragglers, many of who motored past last call or sipped “apres-bar” Bourbon on a private piazza, will brave the walk of shame - a hasty morning retreat to avoid impending daylight and anyone that could identify last night’s crumpled wardrobe.

That’s a small glimpse into the unique daily rhythm and lifestyle dichotomy that draws more than 4 million people annually to the charming, restaurant-rich city of Charleston, S.C.

Charleston image via Shutterstock“The Holy City,” as Charleston is also known, gets its moniker from the abundance of historic, easily viewed church spires, not from strong pious ties to conservative Southern blue law. In fact, one of the first things that becomes immediately apparent when visiting Charleston is that this community has an inviting liberal soul and heartfelt affinity for eating, drinking and shunning stress. Culture and camaraderie in a bustling restaurant community always encourage a certain amount of epicurean endurance-testing and nocturnal prowess, but there is much more at play in Charleston. It is perceptible in every stranger’s smile that greets you in passing. Maybe Charleston’s unique combination of coastal atmosphere and historic ambiance just lends itself to letting loose.

According to Conde Nast Traveler, the atmosphere and ambiance in Charleston are actually so special that it was named “Top City in the U.S.” for the 2011 Reader’s Choice Award. Not surprisingly, Charleston also scored high on the other five categories considered in the Conde Nast award: culture and sites, shopping, lodging, restaurants, and friendliness. Additionally, with a nod to the last category, Travel + Leisure gave Charleston the honor of America’s friendliest city in 2010.

Here are a few highlights to consider when you plan your next visit to Charleston:

Annual Events

For starters, you could always plan a trip around one of these three great events:

Spoleto Festival U.S.A. (May 24-June 9, 2013) - A performing arts festival that ranks among the best in the world.
Southeastern Wildlife Exposition (Feb. 15-17, 2013) - The nation’s largest wildlife art, nature and sporting lifestyle event.  
Charleston Wine and Food Festival (Feb. 28-March 3, 2013) - A BB&T-sponsored festival of local cuisine and national culinary celebrities that draws 20,000 people for the weekend.  

Sites & Activities

-Rent a bike at The Bicycle Shoppe (280 Meeting St.) for the most fun and efficient way to see the city.

-For some of the best views of the city, walk or bike the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge (Cooper River Bridge). It offers dramatic vistas of the peninsula skyline, Charleston Harbor and barrier islands.

-Take a guided tour. There are options for historic home tours, horse and carriage tours, ghost tours, walking tours and, most importantly, pub tours. Charleston Tour Info

-Other historic sites and popular attractions include: Fort Sumter, The City Market, The South Carolina Aquarium, Dock Street Theatre, The Charleston Museum and USS Yorktown.

-Take a short drive to a Southern plantation: Middleton Place, Magnolia Plantation and Drayton Hall are all worth the 20 minute ride.

-Happy hour cocktails on a rooftop bar. There is no better way to see the Lowcountry sunset or meet locals. Pavilion Bar at Market Pavilion Hotel or Rooftop Cocktail Bar at the Vendue Inn.


Charleston is undeniably one of the best food destinations in the country. Its chefs and restaurants consistently attract national press and win culinary awards. With so many great options, the only disappointment is deciding where you won’t get to eat. Here’s a quick list of can’t miss favorites:

Fine Dining:
Blossom Cafe (171 East Bay St., 843-722-9200)
Charleston Grill (224 King St., 843-577-4522)
Cypress (167 East Bay St., 843-727-0111)
FIG (232 Meeting St., 843-805-5900)
Husk (76 Queen St., 843-577-2500)
McCrady’s (2 Unity Alley, 843-577-0025)
Oak Steakhouse (17 Broad St., 722-4220)
Peninsula Grill (112 N. Market St., 843-723-0700)
Slightly North of Broad (192 East Bay St., 843-723-3424)
The Macintosh (479-B King St., 843-789-4299)

Breakfast, Lunch or Casual:
Basil (460 King St., 843-724-3490)
Coast Bar and Grill (39-D John St., 843-722-8838)
Cru Cafe (18 Pinckney St., 843-534-2434)
High Cotton (199 East Bay St., 843-724-3815)
Hominy Grill (207 Rutledge Ave., 843-937-0930)
Sticky Fingers (235 Meeting St., 843-853-7427)
Taco Boy (217 Huger St., 843-789-3333)
T-Bonz Gill and Grill (80 N. Market St., 843-577-2511)
The Grocery (4 Cannon St., 843-302-8825)
39 Rue de Jean (39 John St., 843-722-8881)

One last piece of advice when planning your trip: gear up and get some rest before you go. It’s often all too easy to be lured to the early morning hours by a gracious Southern accent and some rooftop cocktails when you’re in Charleston, S.C.